On December 4, Ward 4 had a special election to fill a vacancy on the State Board of Education (SBOE). For context, I wrote about the Ward 4 Dems SBOE forum late last month and shared my rationale for supporting Frazier O’Leary shortly after.
After resting my brain for a couple of weeks, I decided to dive into the results of this race and write this special edition of Ward 4 By the Numbers. Previously, I took a look at the behavior of Ward 4 voters in the general election in three parts: turnout, ANC results, and citywide candidate results.
As DC Democratic Party Chair Charles Wilson and I anticipated when the special election was first called late this summer, turnout was indeed abysmally low, with only 8.47% of eligible voters casting ballots on December 4th. That’s way better than the 1% turnout we saw in the 2007 District 1 SBOE race or the 3.2% turnout Ward 8 experienced in its 2014 SBOE race, but still lower than the 11% turnout here in Ward 4 for the 2011 special election, which had both an SBOE and At-Large Councilmember seat on the ballot.
Turnout this low is troubling for the legitimacy of any democratic process, and it’s a further argument for the Council to provide funding for the BOE to test vote-by-mail, among other important electoral reforms, in upcoming elections.
Perhaps a longer campaign period would have led to a more engaging race. In the final two weeks, neighborhood listservs lit up with discussion and endorsements. At least three candidate forums in the final two weeks produced rooms packed with constituents who were still making up their minds.
A last minute Hail Mary email by Councilmember Brandon Todd sparked controversy that seemed to tip people toward supporting Frazier O’Leary, who by that point had emerged as the likeliest alternative to Green Team-endorsed front-runner Rhonda Henderson.
SBOE candidate Ryan Tauriainen filed a complaint against Todd, accusing him of using official public resources to support his favored candidate. The complaint, along with an endorsement for O’Leary from famed writer George Pelecanos, sparked renewed attention on the race. DCist picked up the Pelecanos story, while WAMU zeroed in on the email complaints, which still linger post-election as ANC 4C formally requests an investigation in Todd’s alleged use of public resources in the campaign.
Despite this last minute drama, only 5,403 voters ended up casting ballots in this election. So who voted for who?
In the final tally, WTU and JUFJ-endorsed Frazier O’Leary took home 45.53% of the vote, a healthy 8 points ahead of DFER-endorsed Rhonda Henderson, who took home a respectable 37.73%. Elani Lawrence came in third with 10.81%, and Tauriainen rounded out the field with 5.62%. Seventeen people, or 0.32%, wrote in someone else.
Everyone wants to conclude something different from these results:
- Is it proof that parents are fed up with the outsized role of charter schools?
- Is it proof that parents are disturbed by the endless scandals under mayoral control?
- Is it proof the Green Team has no coattails in its home base anymore?
- Is it proof that progressives like O’Leary can win in other races ward-wide?
- Is it an indication that WTU and JUFJ have powerhouse get-out-the-vote operations?
When we look at the final results, I think it’s safe to say MAYBE to #1, #2, and #4. I think we can safely say YES to #3 and #5. Let’s use these questions as the framework for analyzing results.
Mayoral Control and Charters
O’Leary won while being by far the most aggressive critic of mayoral control and the imbalanced relationship between charter and public school funding, enrollment, and programming. However, both Henderson and Lawrence, who one might argue showed the least interest in addressing these more fundamental systemic questions, received a combined vote total of 2,618 votes to O’Leary’s 2,035. So it’s hard to conclude a majority of voters were primarily motivated by concerns about charters and mayoral control, but it’s clear that they are willing to give critics’ arguments a chance.
Green Team Coattails and Progressive GOTV
Henderson received a tremendous amount of institutional support from Councilmember Todd, including robocalls, donor direction, email blasts, canvassing, and staff support, as well as from Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), which donated large sums and sent at least one mailer on Henderson’s behalf. Despite all of this and outspending O’Leary nearly five-to-one, Henderson lost by a sizeable margin. That is a clear sign that the machine that carried Adrian Fenty, Muriel Bowser, and Brandon Todd into office isn’t producing the same results it used to. We also saw this in ANC races, where Councilmember Todd leaned heavily into three challengers, only one of whom prevailed by a close margin in a precinct that always votes Green Team.
The aggressive canvassing operation launched by WTU and JUFJ’s Campaign Fund in the final month seemed to ensure relatively strong turnout in precincts where progressives like O’Leary are expected to perform well, but it also kept the margins close even in traditional toss-up precincts. For example, O’Leary won two of the three precincts that cast the most ballots – 51 and 63 – by nearly 30% and 20% margins, respectively. Those are progressive strongholds, but that margin is remarkable. Even in precinct 62, which cast the most ballots and is home to Mayor Bowser herself, O’Leary lost to Henderson by less than 20 votes!
The precincts where Henderson performed the strongest were 64 (60% of the vote), 61 (55% of the vote), 65 (54% of the vote), and 57 (51% of the vote). Despite healthy victory margins, the Green Team just couldn’t produce better than middling turnout in these areas compared to the those in toss-up and progressive-leaning precincts.
Clearly, O’Leary’s campaign produced an incredible level of enthusiasm and volunteerism while running on a decidedly progressive platform. Combined with Leon Andrews’s results against Brandon Todd in 2016 and my own election results in the June 2018 primary, a pattern does seem to be developing. But we don’t have enough data yet to say decidedly that Ward 4 has moved left. Could it be that voters simply respond better to grassroots get-out-the-vote operations than they do to the establishment’s money-and-paid-media approach? The 2020 race for Ward 4 Council will likely provide us with a more conclusive answer.
You can read the SBOE special election results for yourself on the BOE website.